Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder, CEO and president of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance, touchingly remembers the rabbi training him for his bar mitzvah pinching his cheek and saying in a whisper, “Moshela, it’s your bar mitzvah. I want you to remember how many hundreds of thousands of young boys were murdered in the Holocaust, so when you say your haftarah, say it loud, as if you were saying it for them as well.”
In 1980, Rabbi Hier founded Moriah Films, the film division of the Center, which produces documentaries that show the profound struggle of Jewish people throughout history. It is named after Mount Moriah, where Abraham, the first Jew, was tested by God. Hier is the only rabbi who is a voting member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and the recipient of two Academy Awards. Celebrities donate their time to narrate the documentaries, which have large orchestral scores and animated visuals like feature films.
He exclaims, “When we tell the story of the Jewish people in all the films that we’ve done, we need to say it loud, with courage, because we paid the supreme price.”
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Moriah Films’ documentary In Search of Peace. Hier co-produced and co-wrote the film with director Richard Trank, an Academy Award-winning filmmaker and principal writer/director and executive producer of Moriah Films. The script is based on material written by the late Sir Martin Gilbert, a Jewish British historian and author. Narrated by Michael Douglas, In Search of Peace documents the tumultuous history of Israel from when it was established as a Jewish state in 1948 through the Six Day War of 1967.
Trank notes, “We made In Search of Peace as a sequel of sorts to our film The Long Way Home, which won the Oscar in 1998. The Long Way Home was about the struggle of the survivors of the Shoah to make new lives for themselves. So many people thought, ‘May 8, 1945, they opened the gates to the camps and everybody was fine.’ They don’t realize what people went through. And then we discovered how little people knew about Israel’s history as well, which is why we then made In Search of Peace and the films The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers and its sequel, The Prime Ministers: Soldiers and Peacemakers.”
Israel’s War of Independence, the Suez crisis and the Mossad capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann are shown through footage and stills licensed from The Spielberg Jewish Film Archive, Jerusalem Cinematheque’s Israel Film Archive, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and other national and private archives. Trank describes how he uses footage that has never been seen before.
“At the Spielberg archives, they had outtakes from all the various newsreel services, and that stuff is really fascinating, because it’s the stuff that basically winds up on the cutting room floor. But somebody collected that, and it enabled us to be able to show things that people ordinarily weren’t used to seeing. So we’ve done that with all of our films. I don’t want people seeing the same thing over and over again.”
PERSONAL ACCOUNTS of political heroes and people who struggled to survive this period of time in Israel are interwoven throughout the storyline. The triumphs and disappointments of Golda Meir, Israel’s first and only female prime minister, are highlighted throughout the film. One of her most celebrated moments was in January 1948, when she singlehandedly raised $50 million dollars from American Jewish leaders for the Israeli Army by pleading, “What are Jews in the United States thinking? Are you with us, or are you not? Do you consider it your problem, or do you consider it that because these Jews have come into Israel, that they are our Jews and you have nothing to do with them anymore? That’s all that I am asking you tonight.”
Trank describes the process of finding the right story.
“I look at all these historical texts, and the rabbi is like an archaeologist in a way. He looks to find stories that are very amazing and emotional. Oftentimes people don’t know them, so it helps bring color to the black and white.”
Rabbi Hier adds, “The soul should participate in the watching, not just the brain.”
One of the most heartbreaking but inspirational stories Rabbi Hier found was told to him by former Israeli prime minister adviser Yehuda Avner. Esther Callingold, Avner’s sister-in-law, was a young British schoolteacher who immigrated to Israel in 1946 out of her love for the country and strong belief in Zionism that stemmed from her Orthodox Jewish family values. A little over a year after obtaining a position as an English teacher at the Evelina de Rothschild School in Jerusalem, Callingold became a Hagana soldier deeply committed to fighting for her homeland. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, she was defending The Jewish Quarter as the Arab Legion’s artillery decimated the Old City’s most sacred synagogues and historical buildings.
Callingold was critically injured and taken to a hospital, where she lay in horrific pain because they had run out of morphine. A patient next to her offered her a cigarette, which she refused because it was Shabbat. At just 22 years old, she knew she was about to die, and penned a passionate plea to her parents.
“I’m writing to beg you that whatever happens to me, take it in the spirit I want. We had a difficult fight, I have tasted hell, but it has been worthwhile because I’m convinced the end will see a Jewish state and all of our longings. I have lived my life fully, and very sweet it has been to be in our land. I hope one day you will all come and enjoy the fruits for which we have been fighting. Be happy and remember me only in happiness.”
ANOTHER COURAGEOUS hero who was willing to risk her life for Israel was Shula Cohen. Born in Jerusalem in 1917, Cohen moved to Beirut, where she started a family after marrying a wealthy Jewish-Lebanese merchant when she was just 16 years old. Cohen became prominent in the Jewish community and gained access to inside intelligence information from Lebanese officials about war preparations being made against Israel. On the precipice of the 1948 War of Independence, she started working with the Mossad to give them information and smuggle persecuted Jews from Arab countries to Israel. She sent her own very young children to Israel first, telling them she would meet them in two weeks.
Fighting back sadness, she bravely discloses, “Inside of myself, my heart was torn in pieces because I know I am lying to them, and they don’t know that I make them the pioneers of the aliyah so that everybody will see that I sent the first two of myself, so that I can take others and send them to Israel.”
In 1960, Cohen was arrested by Lebanese authorities and convicted without a trial of high treason. She was originally sentenced to death by hanging, but this was appealed after authorities discovered she was a mother to seven children. She was severely tortured and spent two years in solitary confinement. After the Six Day War of 1967, Cohen’s devoted nephews are shown praying for her at the Western Wall. Miraculously, their prayers were answered and they were reunited with her and the rest of her family when she was released in a prisoner of war exchange with Israel.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews came to the Old City to see the Western Wall after the Six Day War ended. It was a celebration of coming home to a land only dreamt about for generations of Jewish people who struggled immeasurably to get there. But in Israel, victory often comes with a tragic price: 759 Israeli soldiers were killed in battle, and more than 2,300 were wounded. On the Arab side, over 30,000 troops died, and many more were injured.
Rabbi Hier and Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of global social action of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, have been developing relationships with Arab leaders for over two decades. Rabbi Hier explains, “When the leaders come, we have special events for them. They’re friends of ours, we’re friends to them.”
Rabbi Cooper tells of how the 2007 Bali Holocaust Conference, which the Center co-sponsored, broke many barriers that existed between the Arab and Jewish worlds. “People from Israel came, and it was the first and only time a Holocaust survivor spoke in a Muslim country. His speech was broadcast globally and translated into Arabic in real time... the relationships from that continue to this day.”
RABBI HIER speaks fondly about how he and King Hamad of Bahrain are both fans of Frank Sinatra, who was a huge supporter of Israel and The Simon Wiesenthal Center. He humorously states, “I can say, without any fear of being contradicted, the king of Bahrain knows more of Sinatra’s songs than I do!”
In February 2017, after visiting the Center and the Museum of Tolerance, King Hamad invited Rabbis Hier and Cooper to his palace, where he announced there should be no Arab boycott against Israel, and that Bahrainis were free to visit there whenever they want. Rabbi Hier took King Hamad’s hand and recited the blessing for royalty in Hebrew. The king told government leaders, “That was the first time someone came to me not to ask for something, but to give me a blessing.”
King Hamad signed The Bahrain Declaration on Religious Tolerance at the meeting, and then he and the Arab diplomats in attendance stood for “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem.
Rabbi Hier describes visiting King Hussein of Jordan when the monarch had eye surgery in Los Angeles in 1996.
“There he was. He had bandages, and he took out his wallet, and in his wallet he had a membership card to the Museum of Tolerance, which he insisted on having.... How many of our members carry their membership card with them? I don’t know, but the king did.”
Another supporter of the Center is Mohammed Alabbar, a very successful Arab businessman, who had kosher meals provided for Rabbi Hier when he stayed at his Dubai hotel, the Burj Khalifa.
Rabbi Hier explains, “There was a synagogue there. We made our own minyan [prayer quorum] in the Burj Khalifa... since the hotel is so large, people would get lost, so every time we went to the lobby, there was an Arab holding a sign ‘Shacharit morning services, this way.’ This was years before there was establishment of any relations between the Gulf states and the State of Israel.”
Rabbi Hier tells how, in 2019, he went with an Israeli ambassador to a synagogue in Manama, Bahrain, that had not held a prayer service since 1948. “We prayed there, and at the end of the prayer service, all of the people were gathered, there were some Arabs, and mainly there were some reporters, and we danced to ‘Am Yisrael Chai.’”
The 20th anniversary of In Search of Peace coincides with more than 20 years of interfaith outreach work the Simon Wiesenthal Center has done to help bridge the divide between Jews and Arabs. Moriah’s debut film, Genocide, narrated by Orson Welles and Elizabeth Taylor, premiered in 1982 and was the first documentary about the Holocaust to win an Oscar and the first film about the Holocaust to be translated into Farsi and streamed into Iran. It was also subtitled in Arabic and broadcast in Egypt. Today, because of the Abraham Accords, plans are underway to subtitle In Search of Peace and the rest of Moriah’s 15 films into Arabic. Through watching documentaries like In Search of Peace, people in Arab countries can soon see the struggle of Jewish immigrants who came to Israel in a different light, and from a more personal perspective.
In a similar way, the friendships Rabbis Hier and Cooper have developed over the years with leaders in the UAE, Bahrain and other Arab countries have helped pave the way for more peaceful relations in the Middle East, like the peace that’s hoped for in the Abraham Accords.
According to Rabbi Cooper, “If you find people who are decent people, you find ways to build the cultural gap... If you’re open, you can get in the door.”
For more information: www.moriahfilms.com